American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

Meet the Parents


Meet the Parents

Robert De Niro wants to make sure Ben Stiller isn’t lying when he says that he’s his favorite dramatic actor.

(2000) Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Robert de Niro, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Nicole deHuff, Owen Wilson, Phyllis George, James Rebhorn, Jon Abrahams, Thomas McCarthy, Judah Friedlander, William Severs, Kali Rocha, John Fiore. Directed by Jay Roach

 

It is true of all long-term intimate relationships that you are not only with your partner, are with your partner’s family as well (and they with yours). There is nothing more terrifying for a prospective groom than meeting the mom and dad for the first time with them eying you not as a boyfriend but as the husband for their daughter. Believe me, I know — I’ve been there.

Greg Focker (Stiller) is a male nurse facing this very prospect. He is head-over-heels in love with Pamela Byrnes (Polo) and is intent on marrying her, but wants to do it the right way. Before he asks her, he wants to ask her dad first. And for you guys thinking of asking daddy for her little girl’s hand, consider the nightmare it would be if daddy happened to be de Niro. As in Robert. Yup. Someone get the smelling salts please.

Focker does his best to make a good impression, but he is in a household made chaotic by the impending marriage of Pamela’s sister (deHuff), the presence of her medically-snobbish in-laws-to-be (George and Rebhorn) and Pamela’s somewhat put-upon mother (Danner). Things keep going wrong for poor Greg. And then they get worse. By the time things come to a head, your sides will be sore with laughter.

Stiller, on the strength of this film and There’s Something About Mary, has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable comedians. His likable boy-next-door style reminds me, oddly enough, of silent star Harold Lloyd, without the physicality. De Niro, who exhibited heretofore unknown comic talents in Analyze This, continues to lampoon his own image with hilarious results. Wilson, who has since made a career out of playing the laconic second banana shines here; he’s not so much a second banana as a comic foil here, the perfect ex who makes Greg look more and more like a schmuck with each incident.

My beef with the movie is that Greg, who is a plenty smart guy, turns into a raging idiot once the action begins. I can understand how the need to impress your prospective in-laws might lead you to doing some things you might not ordinarily, but Greg as a nurse didn’t strike me as particularly irresponsible – why would he be completely irresponsible in the in-law situation to the point of irrationality? That didn’t jive with me and was really the one part of the film I had trouble reconciling.

Even if you don’t like the Farrelly Brothers, whose style Meet the Parents most closely resembles, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud hysterically at some of the more inspired gags. There’s one bit involving a cat and an urn that literally turned the Da Queen and I purple from laughter. It’s very therapeutic (although those with parental remains in their home may cringe). There is definitely a more 90s comedic feel here but it never devolves into schtick which some comedies from the era did. While there is plenty of slapstick it didn’t strike me as particularly low-brow, sort of a happy medium more like.

Meet the Parents is vulgar in places (but not as much as, say, The Hangover) but it’s screwball at heart. It’s one of the funniest movies of its era, certainly far more successful in creating laughs than its two successors in the series. If life is stressing you out, an evening watching Meet the Parents could be just the tonic you need.

WHY RENT THIS: Stiller is at the top of his game. Really, really funny in places. One of the best comedies of its era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiller’s character acts unbelievably dumb in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexuality, a bit of bad language and some drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name “Focker” was suggested by Jim Carrey who was at one time attatched to the property in the role Stiller eventually took. The MPAA wouldn’t allow the use of the name however until the filmmakers found at least one person with that surname, which they did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All DVD editions include a Blooper reel. The DVD Bonus and Blu-Ray editions includes a scene of DeNiro singing “Love is in the Air,” a featurette on the training of the cat that played Mr. Jinx and a featurette on polygraph testing. The DVD Collectors edition includes none of those, but does have two interactive games.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $330.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a big time blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: There’s Something About Mary

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Looper